Category: Games

Don’t relax about nuclear war

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Each generation has its own form of recency bias, as it is called in behavioral economics. Just after Sept. 11, for example, there was great concern about follow-up attacks. (Thankfully, nothing comparable followed.) Now we worry a lot — maybe too much — about insolvent banks, insufficiently high inflation, and the Chinese shock to U.S. manufacturing.

So what about nuclear war? Looking forward, the reality is that the risks of such a war are quite small in any particular year. But let the clock run and enough years pass, and a nuclear exchange of some kind becomes pretty likely.

I have found that people with a background in financial market trading are best equipped to understand the risks of nuclear war. An analogy might be helpful: Say you write a deeply out-of-the-money put, without an offsetting hedge. This is in fact a very risky action, though almost all of the time you will get away with it. When you don’t, however — when market prices move against you — you can lose all of your wealth quite suddenly.

In other words: Sooner or later the unexpected will come to pass.

And:

Meanwhile, a generation of hypersonic delivery systems, being developed by China, Russia and the U.S., will shorten the response time available to political and military leaders to minutes. That raises the risk of a false signal turning into a decision to retaliate, or it may induce a nation to think that a successful first strike is possible. Remember, it’s not enough for the principle of mutual assured destruction to be generally true; it has to be always true.

Do read the whole thing, which includes a discussion of Steven Pinker as well.

Which countries are best for creating and encouraging women chess players?

Via David Smerdon, here is the picture:

To oversimplify only a wee bit, it is the countries with less gender equality which have more female chess players, relative to male chess players.  Here is some description:

Denmark is the worst country in our list of participation, with only one female player to roughly 50 males, while the rest of Scandinavia as well as most of western Europe also languish at the bottom.

On the other hand, some of the best countries show evidence of the effect of female role models, and would be no surprise to players familiar with women’s chess history. Georgia (ranked 5th) and China (ranked 4th) both featured multiple women’s World Champions. There are also some high rates from a few unexpected sources: Vietnam (1st), the United Arab Emirates (2nd), Indonesia (8th), and even Kenya (12th) really buck the trend. Interestingly, a lot of the best countries for female chess players are in Asia. Besides Vietnam, there are five other countries in the best ten, and if I am a little more lenient with the chess population cut-offs, Mongolia and Tajikistan would also be in there.

Here is one cited hypothesis:

Could it be that, deep down, women just don’t like chess as much as men?

I consider that to be possible, but unconfirmed.  In any case, the lesson is that gender imbalance in a particular field can be correlated with greater equality of opportunity overall.

Solve for the equilibrium

This one concerns China:

A person familiar with the negotiations said Myanmar’s government reached out to the U.S. to request help reviewing the contract [with China] to ensure it didn’t include any hidden traps. This person said other Western countries, including the U.K. and Australia, provided similar assistance.

The negotiations “were very much Burmese-led but armed with the advice of the Americans and others as well. We were able to go to the Chinese [and say], ‘This part is OK, this part is problematic in terms of debt,’” the person said, referring to the country by its previous name.

The Myanmar port deal is part of an economic and diplomatic influence campaign known as the Belt and Road Initiative, a signature effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping to dot the globe with Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.

Here is the full WSJ story by Ben Kesling and Jon Emont.

CEOs play games cooperatively, and well

We study whether CEOs of private firms differ from other people with regard to their strategic decisions and beliefs about others’ strategy choices. Such differences are interesting since CEOs make decisions that are economically more relevant, because they affect not only their own utility or the well-being of household members, but the utility of many stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. They also play a central role in shaping values and norms in society. We expect differences between both groups, because CEOs are more experienced with strategic decision making than comparable people in other professional roles. Yet, due to the difficulties in recruiting this high-profile group for academic research, few studies have explored how CEOs make incentivized decisions in strategic games under strict controls and how their choices in such games differ from those made by others. Our study combines a stratified random sample of 200 CEOs of medium-sized firms with a carefully selected control group of 200 comparable people. All subjects participated in three incentivized games—Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, Battle-of-the-Sexes. Beliefs were elicited for each game. We report substantial and robust differences in both behavior and beliefs between the CEOs and the control group. The most striking results are that CEOs do not best respond to beliefs; they cooperate more, play less hawkish and thereby earn much more than the control group.

Here is the paper, by Håkan J. Holm, Victor Nee, and Sonja Opper, via the excellent Rolf Degen.

Who again has the power to end the government shutdown?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The real power here is held by government employees, especially those in critical jobs. Let’s say that more TSA screeners decided to walk off the job. It’s already the case that the TSA absentee rate has gone up to 7.6 percent, from 3.2 percent a year ago. It is possible to imagine screeners staying home in much greater numbers, thus crippling the entire nation. That could either force President Donald Trump’s hand or lead to a congressional override of a potential presidential veto.

Yet:

As a rationale for showing up to work, “I’m helping both the TSA and my colleagues” can work for a while, because of both cooperative norms and peer pressure. But I don’t think it can hold things together for more than a few months. They may not have the right to strike, but federal employees can still gum up the works with high absenteeism and poor performance.

I really don’t expect anything good to come of this entire episode.

Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos

NYTimes: Any creative illustration “fixed in a tangible medium” is eligible for copyright, and, according to the United States Copyright Office, that includes the ink displayed on someone’s skin. What many people don’t realize, legal experts said, is that the copyright is inherently owned by the tattoo artist, not the person with the tattoos.

Some tattoo artists have sold their rights to firms which are now suing video game producers who depict the tattoos on the players likenesses:

The company Solid Oak Sketches obtained the copyrights for five tattoos on three basketball players — including the portrait and area code on Mr. James — before suing in 2016 because they were used in the NBA 2K series.

…Before filing its lawsuit, Solid Oak sought $819,500 for past infringement and proposed a $1.14 million deal for future use of the tattoos.

To avoid this shakedown, players are now being told to get licenses from artists before getting tattooed.

Is the age of man-machine cooperation over in chess?

Given further data on the stunning performances of AlphaZero, Charles Murray asked me that on Twitter.  And for now the answer surely seems to be yes: just let AlphaZero rip, and keep the human at bay.  It’s a bit like the joke about the factory: “The dog is there to keep the man away from the machines, and the man is there to guard the dog.”  (Or is it the other way around?)

But here’s the thing: right now there is only one AlphaZero, and AlphaZero does not play like God (I think).  At some point there will be more projects of this kind, and they will not always agree as to what is the best chess move.  Re-enter the human!  Imagine a human turning on AlphaZero and five other such programs, seeing where they disagree, and then querying the programs further to find a better answer.  It is at least possible (though not necessary) that a human will be better at doing this than will a machine.

Keep in mind, the original role in the human in Advanced [man-machine] Chess was not to substitute human chess judgment for machine chess judgment in any kind of discretionary fashion.  It was to adjudicate disagreements across programs: “Rybka has a slightly better opening book.  Fritz is better in closed endgames.  Houdini is tops at defense.”  And so on.  The human then sided with one engine over the others, or simply spent more engine time investigating some options rather than others.

It could possibly run the same way for neural net methods, once we have a general sense of the strengths and weaknesses of different projects.  So yes, man-machine cooperation in chess is a loser right now, but it may well come back.  And there is a broader economic lesson in that, namely that automation may eliminate jobs, but it does not necessarily eliminate them permanently.

How to save the future of chess

Matt asks:

I saw your post about whether the 12th game draw was wise or not, but I haven’t seen this bit so far – I’m curious what you think the 12 draws mean for the future of classical chess? Have we hit the point where the very best in classical will just resign themselves to draws? Should we look to blitz or Chess960 to determine the very best?

It is now 24 world championship games in a row, spread out over two contests, with only two decisive results.  Games between top grandmasters don’t end in draws nearly so often, so something is wrong with the incentives!  The most common claim you hear is that in a 12-game match it is “too hard to come back from a loss,” so the players don’t take enough chances.  That to me seems under-argued from a “maximize expected value backwards induction” point of view (a given move either boosts your expected value from the game or it doesn’t), but in any case there does seem to be a problem.  (Too much advance preparation of openings?)  On top of that, people are upset that two “classical time control” world championships in a row have been decided by the Rapid tiebreaker.

My first suggestion is to extend the matches to 24 games, but in the event of a tie at the end leave the reigning world champion with the title.  That avoids the arbitrariness of any tie-breaking method, places what is to me a justified burden on the challenger, and seems to be enough games to prevent the reigning champion from simply stonewalling with a long series of draws.  And there is plenty of precedent in chess history for matches that long, was it not nice when the Soviets paid for everything?

That said, I fear that venue costs are too high, the length of the match too variable (try booking a top hall under such conditions), and the drawing out of play would make the match harder to market to corporate and other sponsors, who are more interested in concentrated media attention (“In the future, every contender will be famous for fifteen chess games.”)

Chess960 games I find ugly, counterintuitive, and hard to follow.

So how about this?  Have the openings in each game — say the first eight to ten moves — be chosen randomly, but out of a set of high quality but somewhat riskier than average alternatives (no Petroff!).  This would limit the ability of players to choose intrinsically drawish lines with Black.  It also would steer the games away from paths where both players know the main lines thirty moves deep or more, which of course is boring and also conducive to lots of draws.

I would note that many computer vs. computer matches already are played with such a method, and it does seem to make those games more dynamic.

I don’t doubt this method might cause top players to invest all the more time in preparing openings, to avoid being caught entirely off guard (everyone would end up knowing at least something about the Poisoned Pawn Sicilian).  Still, there are limits to total prep, and the games would end up as more exciting, and probably more decisive, whether the players like it or not.

Let’s do it, and limit the impact of this insane arms race in opening preparation.

The game 12 draw

From an email I just sent:

My view was this: if you play out the main computer lines for 8-10 moves, Black’s position does not really improve, nor are White’s holding moves hard to find (he just has to shuffle back and forth).

Black does not have the structural advantage to enable a later transposition into a favorable endgame.

So it actually is a draw!  (sort of)

Does the agreement[to draw]  have to be non-Bayesian?  There is a “vague range,” and by Magnus Carlsen offering the draw maybe he, as Kasparov suggested, lowered his own chances for the rapid tiebreak (shows some loss of nerve), until they were in the same “vague range” as the game 12 final setting.

So Magnus is saying “I don’t have a way of pressing that is better than my chances in the rapid tiebreak,” and Caruana is agreeing and knows that Magnus knows this.

Maybe not “strictly” Bayesian, but it doesn’t seem crazy to me either.

I thank S. for a relevant conversation on these points.

Why chess has remained popular, and why the internet is hard to predict

Those are the topics of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It turns out that chess is oddly well-suited for a high-tech world. Chess does not make for gripping television, but the option of live viewing online, supplemented by computer analysis or personal commentary, has driven a renaissance of the game.

For one thing, computer evaluations have made watching more intelligible. Even if you barely understand chess, you can quickly get a sense of the state of play with the frequently changing numerical evaluations (“+ 2.00,” for instance, means white has a decisive advantage, whereas “0.00” signals an even position). You also can see, with each move, whether the player will choose what the computer finds best.

In essence, some of the suspenseful stupidities of low-level video games have been infused into eggheady chess. You can indulge your inner Pac Man without feeling guilty about it.

At first it was thought that online viewers would favor rapid and blitz chess, which are (as you might expect) more fast-paced. In fact, the slower games, including contests of five hours or more, have not put viewers off. If you are sitting at your office desk, you might wish to glance at the position every few minutes or so. A slower game means you can do that without missing much of the action, and yet still most of your work will get done. If the game is heading to a climax, you can pay full attention for that short period.

Fortunately, the software programs that evaluate the games and players are not yet infallible. So if Stockfish (one such program) indicates that your favorite player is far behind, you can hold out a slim hope that the software is wrong. “Creating artificial suspense” is one of the killer apps of the internet.

There is much more, including a discussion of basketball and trash talking, do read the whole thing.

My favorite things Azerbaijan

I am arrived in Baku!  Here goes:

1. Chess player: Garry Kasparov.  Maybe the greatest player of all time?  He is not ethnic Azerbaijani, but grew up in Baku.

Teimour Radjabov.  It is amazing for how long he has gotten away with playing the King’s Indian Defense at the highest levels of chess competition.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  Over the last year, he has had the best results of anyone in the chess world, including Carlsen.  His forcing style resembles that of Kasparov.

Vugar Gashimov.  He was pretty good too, passed away prematurely in 2014.

Cellist and conductorMstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku.  His Bach Cello Suites are perhaps my favorite of all extant recordings.  Here is one (different) YouTube version.  As a conductor he was uneven, but capable of spectacular live performances of Shostakovich.

Pianist: Bella Davidovich, born in Baku, especially her Chopin.

Philosopher: Max Black, also born in Baku.  He edited Frege and worked on problems from Leibniz, such as the identity of indiscernibles.

Note that numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 on this list were Jews who emigrated to America.

Do you have reciprocity anxiety?

Namely the fear of owing other people, or institutions, a favor, or maybe just the possible perception of such?:

The researchers believe reciprocity anxiety is likely to be greater the bigger a favour and the more public its receipt. They think it’s a trait that companies should take an interest in – while loyalty schemes, vouchers and other freebies have obvious appeal to many customers, results from two initial studies suggested that these marketing strategies are actually likely to deter others…

In a follow-up study, volunteers imagined a shop attendant offering them a free drink and plate full of snacks. Afterwards, high scorers in reciprocity anxiety scored lower for customer satisfaction and they said they would be less willing to visit the store again and less willing to spread a good word about the shop.

“Reciprocity works to establish a psychological bond” between customer and firm, the researchers said, but the discomfort it causes can backfire among those high in reciprocity anxiety, especially if they feel the benefits reflect badly on them or that they will struggle to reciprocate (around 18 per cent of people tested in these new studies scored highly in the trait; age and gender were unrelated).

Here is the full article, and the pointer is from Michelle Dawson.  Finally:

…I wonder how it might impact the ways that people manage their friendships and other relationships – perhaps high scorers in reciprocity anxiety are inclined to turn down invitations, seek help or receive other friendly favours, putting them at risk of loneliness and isolation.

Chinese sentences of the day another view of Trump

I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician…He [Yafei] worries that strategic competition has become the new normal and says that “trade wars are just the tip of the iceberg”.

…In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington. Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong…

My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the US first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skillful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

That is highly speculative, to say the least.  And perhaps you should not be happy if China sees your strategy as strong, since China itself generally does a poor job cultivating allies and also undervalues them.  In any case, that is from Mark Leonard at the FT.